Rescuing life from productivity

And so we get to the crux of our human predicament — the underbelly of our anxiety about every unanswered email, every unfinished project, and every unbegun dream: Our capacities are limited, our time is finite, and we have no control over how it will unfold or when it will run out. Beyond the lucky fact of being born, life is one great sweep of uncertainty, bookended by the only other lucky certainty we have. It is hardly any wonder that the sweep is dusted with so much worry and we respond with so much obsessive planning, compulsive productivity, and other touching illusions of control.

~ Maria Popova from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2021/12/20/four-thousand-weeks-oliver-burkeman/

For years I’ve been finding myself judging my day, each evening as I go to sleep. I lie down, and try as I might, my thoughts go beyond simply reviewing. I tried to stop doing the judging part, to no avail.

There’s a Steve Jobs quote about asking himself a question each morning, and that’s great, (but not something I do.) I realized that I’m asking myself that question at the end of each day after closing my eyes to beckon sleep:

If that was the last day of my life, am I satisfied with what I did?

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Choose two

Life is about tradeoffs. When we know what to say no to, and we know why, we can say yes with comfort and confidence to the things that matter. To the things that last. Work, family, scene. You can have two if you say no to one. If you can’t, you’ll have none.

~ Ryan Holiday from, https://ryanholiday.net/work-family-scene/

The words “work”, “family”, and “scene” are of course maleable. I’d argue there’s a fourth—”self” or “health” would be the word I’d choose—and the admonition should be expanded to, “choose any three.” None the less, there something that feels to me very true about it being necessary, in the way the gravity is necessary to obey, about picking two of those three. There was a time when I chose work and scene. It was interesting, for a while. It wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. What’s your list, and which are you choosing?

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Change is good

Total efficiency constrains us. We become super invested in maintaining the status quo because that is where we excel. Innovation is a threat. Change is terrifying. Being perfect at something is dangerous if it’s the only thing you can do.

~ Shane Parrish from, https://fs.blog/2019/01/getting-ahead-inefficient/

Change is good. (Although, Don Draper’s comment stands, making a different point.) Today I’m making a big change to some of my personal routines. I want different results than I’m currently getting… or pessimistic-me would say, I want some results rather than the none I’m currently getting. I’m not going to dive into what exactly I’m changing.

Instead, I want to touch on the how I’m changing things. I imagined a blank slate— a day with nothing. Then, what’s something I’d like to do? Okay, let’s put that into my day, (or week, month, life, etc..) Then, what’s something I keep “falling into?” …some habit that I see repeating, which I want to avoid. Okay, put something in which blocks that habit. One might have some non-negotiable blocks. (I’ll point out that those are not truly non-negotiable. They’re just costly to change.) Okay, I’ll put those back into my day.

The hard part is not putting too much back in. It’s the same as with packing my bag for a trip. I set out what I want to take. Then I pack the bag. I assess the degree of over-stuffage. (Notice the verb “to lug” lies within “luggage.”) Next, I unpack the bag, and reduce things. Finally, I repack the bag.

So, when is the last time you dumped out your luggage?

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If only

The day is actually quite spacious, if we don’t try to overfill it.

~ Leo Babauta from, https://zenhabits.net/unrushed/

It took me far too long to learn this lesson. Or, perhaps I should practice improving my self-talk: I’m so glad I understand this now. For a couple months early in 2022 I had a sticky-note about “urgency?” on my monitor. That had a profound effect on me. Is the house on fire? …okay, then where is the urgency coming from? Hint, Craig: You brought the urgency to the situation.

But, why? Why does the urgency creep in for me? I make long (long loong) arguments out in my mind about how each of the things that I’m doing, represents an intentional choice. At one time, I used to allow other people to choose for me. (I know, right… That’s nuts.) But these days, I’m working out the lesson that just because I choose, that doesn’t mean it’s a good choice. One choice, two choices, three choices, four, five, six… and the day is over-full. Quick! All these things need to be done—I chose them. Hello, urgency.

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Control

We have far more control in our lives than many embrace. We create or co-create our experiences in life, and each day is a new opportunity to be fully engaged in the present moment. It’s the present moment where glimpses of our potential are revealed and expressed. A living masterpiece is not drawn on a canvas or etched in stone or inked by pen. It’s the pursuit and expresssion of applied insight and wisdom.

~ Michael Gervais

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I disagree with, “[w]e have far more control…” because clearly we actually have no—absolutely no—control. If that strikes you, I suggest you pause. Imagine something you have control of. Now imagine the scenario where your control is taken away. I’m not trying to scare you; there’s nothing here you don’t already know. All of the “control” is fleeting; that’s not actually control. That an illusion of control.

If I could change that quote I’d just quibble with that first, “control,” and suggest it be changed to “choice.” Because the rest of that quote is frickin’ powerful. Literally every person has choices. For me, my “worst case” choices are quite rosy. (“First World Problems” is the meme.) There are certainly people who are literally only able to choose among various evils.

The illusion of control is toxic. But the reality of choice is empowering.

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Paralysis

I’ve been up for more than two hours today. I’m completely paralyzed by too many things to do. At this point—this point right here where I’ve opened the text box to write a blog post—I’m simply flailing. Simply grasping at any action.

Where’s the actual problem though? The paralysis isn’t from external pressures; it isn’t that I cannot figure out how to get things done in time, or on budget, to meet other’s expectations. All the expectations come from myself. This is a theme which has come up previously here multiple times.

Luke 4:23 springs to mind. What would I suggest if someone came to me with these exact symptoms, and asked me for help? I’d suggest visualizing what would success look like.

“It would be not this feeling!”

Yes, okay. Can you describe the current feeling?

“It’s a frenetic, cacophony of ideas and options, making me feel like progress—progress is clearly possible upon each idea and option, but progress upon any idea or option feels pointless.”

I notice you said, ‘feels pointless’, … why use ‘feels’ rather than ‘is’?

“Because I know that I could easily finish, at an awesome level of execution, any one of these things. So just picking one of them, arbitrarily, for discussion, progress on that one would move it towards completion.”

Are you saying that working on any of one of them— when you focus on that line of action alone— that actually feels like a good idea?

“Well, yes.”

If considering one feels okay, but considering all of them makes working on them feel not okay…

“But how do I choose? How do I be sure that I can finish all of them— all of these projects?”

You are aware that you cannot be certain to finish anything. This last thing you’ve said is a fact of life, because of the dichotomy of control. If you’ve only chosen to work on virtuous things— let’s take that as a given— then all these things you’re struggling to pick among… they’re all nothing more than preferred indifferents. Pick one, since they are all equally awesome. Chop wood. Carry water.

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Temper one another

Another reprehensible pair is the man who is never at ease and the man who is always at ease. Bustle is not briskness but the agitation of a turbulent mind. And disdaining all activity as a nuisance is not ease but enervation and inertia. … The two attitudes should temper one another: the easy going man should act, the active man take it easy. Consult nature: she will tell you that she created both day and night.

~ Seneca

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Selection

In the most general sense, productivity is about navigating from a large constellation of possible things you could be doing to the actual execution of a much smaller number of things each day.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2021/04/20/the-productivity-funnel/

A decade ago, I was swamped by the sheer number things I could possibly do each day. In one sense, that’s a good problem to have. But good or bad problem, “swamped” and “drowning” are adjacent. I’d committed myself to far too many things. Large swaths of those “possible things” every day came with emotional baggage, and often with the self-imposed weight of “should.” And so I worked on that and eliminated all the negative things.

Unfortunately, selecting what to tackle each day remains just as challenging. I’ve a habit of creating a “page for today” that I scribble on early in the morning. As the day progresses, I cross things off, jot down notes, scribble things which I need to add to my other systems, etc.. Over the years, I’ve used various bits of random paper; for a time, I was using the back-side of all the printer paper from the recycle bin. I’ve used spiral notebooks, tablets, and even a custom spreadsheet, (which I printed on 8.5×11 paper and cut in half to make my own table of half-sheet daily schedule/grid.)

Recently, I realized that the size of the paper I was using was getting progressively smaller. I’m currently using a 3×5-size of Rhodia notebook. (These, if you’re interested. Durable, great paper, and, critically, every page is micro-perforated so I can tear out each day to start fresh the next day.) The sublime recipe of page size, line space, handwriting style and hours in the day goes a long way to keep my selection of what to do tending towards the possible. Whether the sheet for today feels cramped or airy is a good indication of what I’m setting myself up for.

And to be clear, I don’t plan every day into this little book early each morning. On the days when I’ve something big planned—a day trip to the beach, a long weekend away—I throw all structure to the wind. But most days I do.

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